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Guest commentary: Damian Lillard proves he’s a star both on and off the court

Published: Tuesday, May 13 2014 9:15 a.m. MDT

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, center, celebrates with fans, his winning shot against the Houston Rockets during the last .9 of a second of game six of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series game in Portland, Ore., Friday May 2, 2014. The Trail Blazers won the series in a 99-98 win.  (Greg Wahl-Stephens, Associated Press) Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, center, celebrates with fans, his winning shot against the Houston Rockets during the last .9 of a second of game six of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series game in Portland, Ore., Friday May 2, 2014. The Trail Blazers won the series in a 99-98 win. (Greg Wahl-Stephens, Associated Press)

Throughout his entire life, Damian Lillard has been proving his doubters wrong. Whether it was in high school, college or in the NBA, Lillard has taken on many challenges while always rising to the occasion.

Growing up in Oakland, California, Lillard always had the talent to play with the best of them. During his senior season at Oakland High, Lillard averaged more than 28 points per game. Unfortunately, because his AAU team (Oakland Rebels) wasn’t a “big-time” program, he was often overlooked by scouts and was scarcely recruited coming out of high school.

In fact, the only scholarship that Lillard received was from Weber State University, a small “mid-major” school in Ogden, Utah. Anybody living outside the state lines during this time frame most likely had no idea where Weber State was located, let alone which state it was in.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) drives to the basket on Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut (12) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Sunday, April 13, 2014.  (STEVE DYKES, AP) Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) drives to the basket on Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut (12) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Sunday, April 13, 2014. (STEVE DYKES, AP)

It has been said that when Weber State coach Randy Rahe first saw Lillard play, he couldn’t believe that other schools were not hunting him down and begging him to play for them. Luckily for Rahe, Lillard committed to play for the Wildcats. This commitment not only changed Lillard’s life, but Rahe’s, Weber State’s and the entire college basketball community in the state of Utah.

Because Lillard wasn’t heavily recruited in high school, he always played with a chip on his shoulder. When it was time to go home after practice, Lillard would stay after to work on his game. When the gyms were closed on campus, Lillard needed other options to practice. One of those options was going to the Ogden Recreation Center to get his practices in. As college students across the country know, money is always tight. Lillard had a tough decision to make — shelling out the money for extra practices, or skip some of them altogether to save some money.

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, center, celebrates his winning shot against the Houston Rockets during the last .9 of a second of game six of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series game in Portland, Ore., Friday May 2, 2014. The Trail Blazers won the series in a 99-98 win.  (Greg Wahl-Stephens, Associated Press) Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, center, celebrates his winning shot against the Houston Rockets during the last .9 of a second of game six of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series game in Portland, Ore., Friday May 2, 2014. The Trail Blazers won the series in a 99-98 win. (Greg Wahl-Stephens, Associated Press)

We’ve all heard the saying, “practice makes perfect,” and that’s exactly what Lillard did. Things certainly paid off as Lillard quickly became one of the top college basketball players in the entire country. Following the 2012 season and after an incredible career with the Wildcats (winning numerous awards), Lillard decided to forgo his senior season and enter the 2012 NBA draft.

On June 28, 2012, The Portland Trail Blazers selected Lillard with the sixth overall pick in the NBA draft. With that pick, Lillard became the first Weber State player to be drafted in the first round.

Lillard quickly showed those five NBA teams that passed on him what a big mistake they had made. During his stand-out rookie season in which he played all 82 games for the Portland Trail Blazers, Lillard was unanimously named the 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year — the first Utah collegiate player to ever achieve that honor.

Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) as the Utah Jazz play the Portland Trailblazers in NBA basketball Monday, April 1, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) as the Utah Jazz play the Portland Trailblazers in NBA basketball Monday, April 1, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Lillard became only the fourth rookie in NBA history to win the award by a unanimous vote, joining a very select group that consists of Blake Griffin, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson.

So what did Lillard provide for an encore this year? For starters, he became the first NBA player to ever participate in all five events during All-Star weekend. Lillard took part in the slam dunk contest, the skills competition, the 3-point contest, the Rising Stars Challenge as well as the All-Star Game.

Perhaps Lillard's biggest achievement came when he hit a 3-pointer as time expired to give the Portland Trail Blazers a 99-98 win over the Houston Rockets two weeks ago. The win advanced the Trail Blazers to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in 14 years.

Former Weber State basketball star Damian Lillard, currently with the Portland Trailblazers, greets fans and personnel prior to the Purple and White scrimmage game at the Dee Events Center in Ogden Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2012. (Deseret News archive) Former Weber State basketball star Damian Lillard, currently with the Portland Trailblazers, greets fans and personnel prior to the Purple and White scrimmage game at the Dee Events Center in Ogden Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2012. (Deseret News archive)

Is Lillard an NBA star?

During a segment last week on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon talked about Lillard, his game-winning basket against the Rockets and whether or not he’s an NBA star.

During the discussion, Kornheiser said that Lillard isn’t a star in the NBA because of two reasons: First, because he played at Weber State, which is not Duke, Kansas, etc. Second, because Lillard plays in a smaller market (Portland) and that he hasn’t really done anything in the league.

Were Kornheiser’s comments out of line or did he have a legitimate point? I’ll let you be the judge of that, however, I personally believe Lillard is a star for a number of reasons.

First, he became the only player in NBA history to take part in five major All-Star events. Current basketball stars such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and even Kobe Bryant have not been able to accomplish such a feat. Because some events are only for rookies and sophomore's, these NBA greats have no chance at accomplishing what Lillard has achieved.

NEWARK, NJ - JUNE 28:  Damian Lillard (R) of Weber State greets NBA Commissioner David Stern (L) after he was selected number six overall by the Portland Trail Blazers during the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft at Prudential Center on June 28, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) (Elsa, Getty Images) NEWARK, NJ - JUNE 28: Damian Lillard (R) of Weber State greets NBA Commissioner David Stern (L) after he was selected number six overall by the Portland Trail Blazers during the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft at Prudential Center on June 28, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) (Elsa, Getty Images)

Second, Lillard has been given a shoe contract that is currently valued at over $100 million from Adidas. It is one of the biggest shoe contracts since Derrick Rose signed a 13-year deal in 2012, making Lillard one of the highest-earning endorsers in the NBA. While Kornheiser might not think Lillard is a star, Adidas certainly begs to differ as it is betting big on Lillard.

Lastly, does it really matter what school you went to? Last time I checked, the only thing that matters in the sports arena is winning. Are wins doubled based on which school you went to in high school or college? No! Just because Lillard went to Weber State doesn’t diminish any of the many achievements he has accomplished during his short NBA career.

There have been thousands of athletes who have come from lesser known schools or “mid-majors” and have done extraordinary things in professional sports. Utah Jazz fans will always remember two of the most dominating NBA players (John Stockton and Karl Malone) to ever put on a Jazz uniform. Even though Stockton and Malone came from smaller schools in Gonzaga and Louisiana Tech, they didn’t let that stop them from having some of the greatest careers in the NBA.

Team Hill's Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, right, moves the ball against Team Webber's Trey Burke of the Utah Jazz during the Rising Star NBA All Star Challenge Basketball game, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (Gerald Herbert, AP) Team Hill's Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, right, moves the ball against Team Webber's Trey Burke of the Utah Jazz during the Rising Star NBA All Star Challenge Basketball game, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (Gerald Herbert, AP)

Other famous professional athletes who have come from “smaller schools” include: Scottie Pippen, Tim Hardaway, Steve Nash, Bill Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor, Paul Millsap, Steve Smith, Andre Miller, Eric Weddle, Alex Smith, Jamal Anderson, Steve Young, Jimmer Fredette, Danny Ainge, Jim McMahon, Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, etc.

Even after everything that he has accomplished, Lillard’s critics are still out there. While it bothers some, Lillard takes it in stride as it serves even more motivation to outwork and outplay any challenger that comes his way.

Justin Giles holds a bachelor's degree in communications with an emphasis in journalism. He recently completed an internship with the Deseret News. Follow him on Twitter @Justingiles22 Email: justingiles22@gmail.com

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